Revealed: Yahoo and Microsoft sell personal user data to political campaigns
If you’ve ever wondered who is on the other side of the computer screen, now you know: political campaigns are increasingly purchasing private data about Internet users to target them with hand-crafted advertisements.
Political campaigns are quickly becoming more and more demographic-specific and it’s not a coincidence. By matching personalized user information voluntarily offered to major Silicon Valley companies like Yahoo and Microsoft with other troves of data mined by third-party researches, specialized user profiles that link voter history with other items such as income and retail purchases are being sold to political action committees and other groups to help narrow in on niche markets leading up to election day.
When Americans create complimentary email accounts with services such as Yahoo, for example, they willingly hand-over personal information about not just their names and address but their online activity. Those logs are then managed by major Web entities that can track the online histories of their customers through cookies, though they preserve their clients’ anonymity.
These anonymity-masked statistics are usually left to sit on servers with no outside purpose, but its been revealed that both Yahoo and Microsoft have sold off that personal information to companies that are using the contents to build specific profiles to be purchased by vote-hungry political campaigns.
Somewhere completely else in cyberspace, third-party companies are harvesting detailed data that links the names of Americans with publically available statistics, such as registered political party and campaign donations; at the same time, other companies are collecting other information about users that may be of interest to campaign committees, including income, education and more, that requires a bit more digging to develop. And although it was once difficult to match a person’s online profile with their life off the Web, campaign consultant groups such as Aristotle, CampaignGrid and Targeted Victory have developed ways to do just that, report both ProPublica and The New York Times.
In recent campaigns, and its believed that even in the current race for the White House, politicians have paid good money to target specific crowds by purchasing ads through Microsoft and Yahoo that will reach a certain group of users that meet specific criteria, such as location and political affiliation. By creating a rough profile of Internet users based on all available information, campaigns can purchase niche advertisements that are only sent to certain users based on what is known about them.
The companies tied directly with this new brand of microtargeting say that the names of the users are numerically encoded and that political committees are only reaching out to pools of would-be voters that have certain factors in common, such as location and age. The end result, however, is such a specific outreach that it has critics concerned over the future of campaigning.
This month, US President Barack Obama sent thousands of supporters an email asking to donate to his re-election campaign to be in turn entered into a contest to attend a fundraiser with actress Sarah Jessica Parker. An investigation spearheaded by ProPublica revealed, however, that the administration sent at least seven different emails to different supporters, depending on how recently they may have contributed to the campaign or their age and gender.
“Forty years ago, you’d watch the same evening news ad as your Democratic neighbor,” Kenneth M. Goldstein of the Campaign and Media Analysis Group at Kantar Media tells the Times. Today, however, campaigns can pin-point exactly what time of demographic they want to reach and them bombard them with ads.
"Whenever a campaign or other big organization knows much more about you and your habits than you know about them, any voter is open to manipulation," Chris Calabrese of the American Civil Liberties Union adds to ProPublica.
Although both Republican and Democratic campaigns have admitted to microtargeting, each election committee involved in the 2012 presidential race remains mum on their exact methods. To ProPublica, one Obama spokesperson says that "We have no interest in telling our opponents our digital strategy," but adds, “However, this campaign has always and will continue to be an organization that respects and takes care to protect information that people share with us."
Since campaign officials aren’t necessarily clued in on the exact identities of their audience (just everything other than their name) they might have a point and, for now, the practice is legal. Once Americans complain that their personal information is being sold to campaigns, though, all that might change.